Bellydance Styles: Iraqi Kawleeya Dance
What is Iraqi Kawleeya (Kawleya, Kawliya, Qawliya) dance? How is it different from the Khaleegy styles bellydancers have done in the past? Why is it suddenly so popular? Where can you learn it?
You will see this dance called Iraqi Dance, Kawleeya (Kawliya, Qawliya), Iraqi Hair Dance, Iraqi Gypsy Dance, Hecha3, or Ghajar. Gypsy and Kawleeya are sometimes seen as derogatory terms; Ghajar is more polite.
When you see references to ‘Iraqi‘ style by bellydancers, this is the style they are probably talking about — but Iraqi people are more likely to to consider Chobi or Debke as their own. They will think of this as a dance that Ghajar women do for money in Iraq, but not an Iraqi dance.
Kawleeya is the most commonly used term for the dance style as of this writing, so that’s what I’ll use in this article.
Related folk dances
Kawleeya is most closely related to the Khaleegy group of dances. Some of the Gulf dance moves find a more energetic expression in Kawleeya, but this version of the dance has its own movement vocabulary as well.
Defining Characteristics of the Style
- Hairwork: One of the hallmarks of the style is that the dancer’s hair is a featured element. She will swing her hair in circles, whip it back and forth, even dangle and tremble it to create a hair shimmy!
- Head shimmies: In addition to hair shimmies, a Kawleeya dancer will slide her head from side to side in a shimmy-like movement that is both delicate and saucy.
- Finger snaps: You’ll see lots of Persian two-handed finger snaps and other moves done with the palms together.
- Floorwork: The dancer will frequently kneel to do hairspins, or to do rhythmic bouncing movements.
- Hip & Shoulder Shimmies: Shimmies of all sizes are popular.
- Daggers: The Kawleeya dancer will often hold a small dagger in each hand and, smiling, poke them rhythmically into her hips, belly and shoulders. There are numerous stories about the meaning of the prop. Gypsies in this part of the world were often blacksmiths, so they would have made daggers. The daggers are said to mean “I would follow my lover into the afterlife.”
- Pacing: Kawleeya dancers will do a lot of time-keeping, with side-to-side steps and shimmies, especially while the singer has the floor. Bursts of exciting hairwork or dagger play are interspersed through the dance.
- Hopping: Kawleeya dancing involves a lot of bouncing from the feet, hopping on both feet at the same time. The dancer may lay her head/hair from side to side as she bounces, or spin backwards, leading with the hips, or touch one foot down in front and back while the other holds her position.
Things you WON’T see, or won’t see much
- Revealing Costumes: The dancer typically doesn’t show a lot of leg, belly, or cleavage.
- Props: Except for the daggers, props aren’t common in this style.
- Ballet/Ballroom influence: This is an earthy style with a low center of gravity and very relaxed arms. You won’t see a lot of graceful swanning about or upward reaching in Kawleeya.
- Traveling: Like Beledi, Kawleeya is traditionally a fairly stationary dance. Fancy floor patterns aren’t really part of the style.
The typical costume is a floor-length dress, close-fitting but not skintight.
A narrow, fitted version of the thobe nasha’al many bellydancers wear for Khaleegy is appropriate, as is a beledi dress without high slits at the leg. It’s typical for the dress to have some decoration at the hips and often the shoulder/chest area to highlight shimmies.
A fringed belt may be worn over a curve-hugging long dress as well.
The music used for Kawleeya is similar to Iraqi Chobi (line dance) music, or “hecha3”.
The most distinctive sound is the rapid-fire Khishba, also known as Kasour or Zanboor, from the Basra area of Southern Iraq. The narrow tube-shaped body is wood, with a fish-skin head glued on top. The head is moistened to get the ‘machine-gun’ sound characteristic of these drums.
Here is a clip of a Khishba being played:
Kawleeya as it’s done in Iraq
The Kawleeya, like gypsies in many countries, are considered second-class citizens – but at the same time are valued for their entertainment skills.
Here is a choreography by Assala Ibrahim, a dancer born and raised in Iraq who now teaches in Europe. Don’t miss Assala’s notes about the choreography:
“The kawiliya (gypsies) of Iraq always try to hide their origin and pretend to belong to the city of Bagdad to avoid discrimination. I choreographed this piece in a light hearted way to show how the dancer pretends to be from the city. The Baghdadi women don’t believe her but they still need her presence; she brings joy, fun and dance to their life. The piece shows that the Kawiliya are a part of our Iraqi society and they share joy and sorrow with the Iraqi people in their daily lives. The Iraq of today has become a very hard place for the Kawiliya to live and practice their lifelong tradition of earning a living through dance and music.”
An Iraqi dancer named Melayeen is one of the best-known dancers of Kawleeya-style dance (although she is reputedly not Kawleeya). This is Melayeen (performing in a regular bellydance costume, not a typical Kawleeya costume. Check out her amazing dagger work!
Here is a fantastic example of dagger dancing, in a tableau from Iraqi satellite TV. Embedding has been disabled, please click here to see the video
No props this time, just some fantastic Kawleeya-style dance from Mexican dancer Carmen Fragoso.
Note that these dancers aren’t working from choreography or trying to present a unified look.
It is very typical to see groups of young women dancing in loose and unchoreographed groups like the clip above. Here you will see a lot of timekeeping steps, several costumes, and each girl’s unique style. Unfortunately, these scenes are often cases of young women being paraded in front of wealthy men.
This dance style is closely associated with prostitution. It’s very important to understand this connection before teaching and performing the style, and to handle it carefully onstage. Here’s a good introduction to the topic (filmed before war broke out in Syria, the refugee situation is even worse now).
The Eastern European Version of Kawleeya
Eastern European, Ukranian, and Russian dancers have been the ones to bring this dance style into public awareness. But their Kawleeya style differs from what is done in Iraq. The movements and the costumes have been stylized to suit a different aesthetic. You’ll see more traveling, more emphasis on choreography, acrobatic backbends, more vigorous neck movement, less time-keeping, and a Western dance influence in the arms and posture. The costume is different, too — usually skintight through the torso and widely flared at the hemline, sometimes with a bra-styled top.
In many ways, it is the Ukranians and Russians who are popularizing this dance. Their super-athletic version of Kawleeya has captured the imagination of the worldwide dance community. Some dancers are emulating their interpretation, and in other cases their performances are leading dancers to the source to learn the original Iraqi style.
Here’s a Ukranian take on Kawleeya, by dancer Daila of the Czech Republic
Here’s Alena Papucha with a similar rendition. You can see that it’s very different from the Iraqi versions of the dance, but it’s a mesmerizing style of its own.
If you’d like to learn more about Kawleeya dance, here are some resources to check out:
- Shems comprehensive website offers a page on Khaleegy and Kawliya dance.
- There are two Facebook Groups dedicated to the study of Kawleeya.
- Teachers who are researching and teaching this dance in the West include
copyright 2018 by Lauren “Zehara” Haas for Belly Dance U. If you want to share this article, please do so by providing a link to this page. You’re more than welcome to print yourself a copy, but copying and distributing this article is prohibited.